Let’s start off by saying that I totally understand that this tour is made available to pimp up your experience of flying with Turkish Airlines. I’m also fully aware of the fact that it’s a teaser trip to get you to come back to Istanbul using for mentioned airline company again. And yes, I don’t know how they do it because it was the cheapest ticket I could get, although free you probably pay for the tour anyway.
PR-gizmo aside, I had fun. This time I didn’t spend my ridiculously long layover in Istanbul – from Amsterdam tot Mumbai – sleeping my afternoon away in an overpriced hotel. Like I did last time.
How come I hadn’t known about this before? If you Google it, you’ll find all the promotional gimmicks that come with the tour. You can write in a journal and even have a video made out of your Istanbul Tour photos. But this is of course when you know what to Google for.
Free is the magic word
I arrived sleepy eyed at the Turkish Airlines desk at 4am in the morning to ask for a hotel. I had told myself before that this time I would visit Istanbul and sightsee, but with only a couple hours of sleep, I was actually looking forward to pay too much for a soft hotel bed again.
A friendly guy behind the desk told me he couldn’t give me a hotel, but he could offer me the FREE Istanbul tour. I love the word FREE. So I nestled myself comfortably in a chair at the nearby Starbucks and dozed off until it was time to get on the bus.
Around 9am a group of eight of us where whisked away on a tour bus by a lovely tour guide lady. Of course I remember she had six cats and a Russian roommate, I unfortunately don’t remember her name. Which is really a shame, because she deserves a shout out.
Breakfast gave me a chance to chat with my fellow tour members. I found out that none of them had actually Googled the tour, but all of them found out through word of mouth. After a breakfast with some boiled eggs, breads and of course olives and feta – we are in Turkey after all- we started our day.
First stop Eyup Sultan Mosque
Normally number one on the program, the Blue Mosque, is closed on Mondays. But this was a pretty good alternative with -if you ask me- pretty amazing ceilings and walls too. This mosque is from the Ottoman period (1435 -1922) of the city’s history. It was the first mosque the Ottomans build and till this date the holiest sight in Istanbul. Mehmed The Conqueror erected it over the tomb of Eyup Sultan. It’s actually one of the holiest sights in the world for Muslims after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. So I’m not too fussed about missing out on the Blue Mosque.
Via the Eyup Sultan Mosque you walk to the Hippodrome where you find the German Fountain, Serpentine Column and Obelisk of Theodosius.
Within a few steps you have walked from the Ottoman Empire back in time to the Byzantine Empire (395-1204 and 1261- 1453) Istanbul was then of course called Constantinople. It’s hard to imagine that horse chariots once raced each other here. It’s a lovely square and we were lucky enough to see it bathed in a nice November sun.
Other sights at the Hippodrome are the German Fountain, the Serpentine Column and the Obelisk of Theodosius. The Obelisk used to be a part of the Temple of Karnak and had a red colour. Today only its top part remains and that has lost its colour completely. I’ve never been to Egypt and as far as I know I’ve never see Egyptian artefacts outside a museum. So I thought this was pretty cool.
Basilica Cistern – the underwater palace
From here it was a quick walk to the Basilica Cistern. The Free Tour ( have to say it again) includes Free Entry to museums as well. Top my surprise it also includes jumping the long line of tourists that was already forming in fromt of the entry. We just walked right inside.
I’m a sucker for nice lights and the sound of water.. So if I have to pick a highlight of the tour, it would be the Cistern I think. In Turkish it’s the Yerebatan Sarayi, or Sunken Palace. And that’s exactly what you think of when you first see the rows of columns with their feet in a water basin. Its apparently capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. In Roman times is was part of a large water filtration system for the city. Good photo opportunity besides the beautiful columns is the inverted Medusa heads all the way at the end of the pathway.
On your way there you’ll find a little platform to the left. In the pillar to your right side there is a small hole. If you put your tump in it and mange to turn it completely around – which I did, yaay – you get to make a wish. I’m not telling you what I wished for obviously. Going by the amount of coins in the water surrounding it, people seem to want to double their luck.
Next stop is the Topkapi Palace.
There is so much to see inside the walls of the largest palace of Istanbul. There is everything you expect to find in an Sultan’s palace it seems. The multiple courtyards, the Mosque, the tower of justice, the rooms of the Harem etc. etc.. We didn’t have time to queue up to see all of it, but we did get a chance to take a rather nice shot alongside of the Bosphorus . The palace has a great view of the European and Asian side of the city.
After a busy morning we were treated to a nice lunch at the same place we had breakfast a few hours before. We had soup, kebabs a beverage of our choice and some overly sweet Turkish dessert.
A different bazaar
Last stop for the day was the Grand Bazaar. Normally the new mosque is also on the program. But most of us had only an hour to get to their connecting flights at the airport, tour guide decided to adapt the program so we didn’t have to run to our gates.
I guess the Grand Bazaar is something you should see. I bought some Turkish Delights and looked around a bit. But if you don’t mind the walk, try to go to the Spice Market were the locals shop. It’s a 20 minutes walk, mainly because the little lanes get so crowded. But it’s well worth it. The products seem to have a better quality there and a much better price. The guy I was with bough Lotus flower tea 100 Lira less then what they tried to charge us in the other market.
If you stand in front of the Grand Bazaar’s main entrance gate, with your nose towards it, take a right. Ask the street sales men along the way to direct you to the Spice Bazaar and they’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.
My overal thoughts
For me this was a great first introduction to Istanbul. I didn’t want to sleep away my time in a hotel and I didn’t want to spend the money I had just saved on my relatively cheap ticket from Amsterdam to Mumbai. I would definitely recommend this tour for first-timer’s to Istanbul with a long layover.
There are three tours you can choose from, they differ in timing but not so much the sights you get to see.
9am to 3pm – 9am to 6pm ( the one I took) and 12 noon to 6pm.
For more information read this recent press review Turkish Airlines posted on their website.
Has this post sparked your interest in Istanbul, or do you have a long layover in the city coming up? Let me know what you think of the Turkish Airlines free tours. Send me and email or just drop a comment below.